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TIFF highlights: ABACUS

A great start to my run at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival—ABACUS: Small Enough to Jail. Steve James’s documentary about the only U.S. bank to be criminally indicted in the wake of the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis is a David and Goliath story about a family’s fight to save its business and clear its name—at the price of $10 million in legal and court costs.

Abacus founder and chairman Thomas Sung with daughters Jill Sung, CEO (centre) and Vera Sung, director.

Abacus founder and chairman Thomas Sung with daughters Jill Sung, CEO (centre) and Vera Sung, director.


Thomas Sung, who arrived in the United States in his teens and trained as a lawyer, opened Abacus Federal Savings Bank in New York City’s Chinatown in 1984 to help fellow Chinese immigrants secure loans to buy homes. The film follows the five-year ordeal of Sung and his four daughters, three of whom now run Abacus, after the bank was charged with falsifying loan applications. The Sungs never disputed that fraud took place at their bank. When they uncovered it, they reported it to the regulator and fired the employee behind it.

The story got virtually no coverage outside of NYC’s Chinese American media.

James captures lovely family moments as the daughters go to bat to defend their family’s honour and its contribution to the Chinatown community. This family refused to be a scapegoat for the large financial institutions that needed taxpayer rescue.

Sung, his wife Hwei Lin, and their daughters were at yesterday’s world premiere, and received standing ovations.

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